In the summer of 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published some intriguing classifications for autonomous vehicles, suggesting that the agency was prepared for self-driving cars to arrive in the very near future. That fall, however, NHTSA and its reps said that such talk was decidedly "premature".
But oh, what a difference a couple of years can make. Last October, Tesla stunned the world with its groundbreaking autopilot feature, and a few weeks ago, NHTSA determined that for regulatory purposes, autonomous vehicle software should be considered a "driver".
Now, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee has announced that Google and other autonomous car developers will make an appearance in Washington, D.C. next week, testifying about the current state and future importance of self-driving cars. According to the Committee:
"The hearing will explore advancements in autonomous vehicle technology and its anticipated benefits for Americans. Witnesses have been asked to testify on their continued efforts to develop automated vehicles, their views on the appropriate role of government in promoting innovation including removing unnecessary hurdles, and their strategy to grow consumer adoption of this new technology."
The hearing will take place on Tuesday, March 15, at 2:30pm. Entitled "Hands Off: The Future of Self-Driving Cars", it will feature testimony from several movers and shakers in the field of self-driving cars, including:
- Dr. Chris Urmson, Director of Self-Driving Cars, Google X
- Mr. Mike Ableson, Vice President for Program Management, General Motors
- Mr. Glen DeVos, Vice President, Global Engineering and Services, Electronics and Safety, Delphi Automotive
- Mr. Joseph Okpaku, Vice President of Government Relations, Lyft
- Dr. Mary (Missy) Louise Cummings, Director, Humans and Autonomy Lab and Duke Robotics, Duke University
(If you're wondering what Lyft is doing in that list, remember that General Motors is working with the ride-sharing company to develop a network of autonomous cars.)
Why hold this hearing now? Self-driving cars are racing toward showrooms faster than most people thought. Many automakers had promised to roll out at least one autonomous model by 2020, which seemed soon enough, but in fact, the 2020 estimate may have been too conservative. Plenty of new cars already have partially autonomous features, and completely self-driving vehicles could be just around the corner.
The benefits of autonomous vehicles are fairly clear, but there are plenty of concerns about them, too--especially in light of Google's admission that one of its self-driving vehicles was partially at fault in a fender-bender. As hard as it may be to believe, it's possible that the U.S. Senate is being slightly pro-active, attempting to familiarize itself with autonomous cars before they take over America's roads.